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It's Payment Time
By Susan Nunziata
(Want to know more about mobile workforce management? Read our feature report, Mobile Workforce Management: The Brave New World.)

AIS Construction Equipment rents, sells and services construction equipment throughout Michigan from its headquarters in Grand Rapids. Although the company was using Push-to-Talk handsets to enable its techs to communicate with regional dispatchers, an archaic paper-based system was slowing everything down.

The company's 50 field technicians were each spending upwards of six hours per week catching up on paperwork. These forms were sent back to the branch offices by email, fax or snail mail. It was taking as many as 20 days to generate an invoice after a service call was completed.

In addition, the Push-to-Talk solution was becoming counter-productive, as technicians were often interrupted in the middle of a job to take a call from dispatch about their next assignment.

While GPS is part of the solution, knowing where workers were located at all times wasn't the main focus for AIS, says Jon Hoffman, General Service Manager. "It was more so how do we get the information [into our database] in a timely manner, to speed up the billing process to be able to bill the next day."

The company had worked with local software integrator Visible Asset of Wixom, MI, on its previous mobile deployments and so turned to the company to upgrade its solution. AIS was outfitted this year with the eTrace application from Gearworks, along with custom software fromVisible Asset, running on BlackBerry 8330 PDAs with Otter Box ruggedized cases for protection. Cellular service is via the Sprint network.

The process begins when a dispatcher creates a job in eTrace and assigns it to a technician. eTrace then sends the job data to the tech's handset, including customer and location, equipment to be worked on, and appointment time, avoiding the interruption of a phone call. The worker uses the handset to record mileage and labor hours, plus inspection results and parts to be ordered, and to indicate when the job is closed out.

The custom software constantly monitors the data being sent to eTrace and provides a summary report showing all jobs, hours and mileage for a single day, with links to the actual work orders.

Technicians are even able to send an automated email alert to sales staff whenever a customer expresses interest in possibly purchasing additional equipment.

So far, 47 of the company's 50 field techs are using the solution, with the final handful to roll out shortly. There are also 36 managers, dispatchers and administrative staff using the solution.

The solution cost approximately $15,000 to implement, plus a $3,000 upgrade to AIS's BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The Sprint cellular plan, including Gearworks, runs $80 per month per user. Hoffman says he expects to achieve ROI within six months to a year.

Immediate benefits are already being realized. Average time-to-bill has been reduced to six days and Hoffman estimates that he's shaved at least 15 minutes per day per tech just in time spent on the phone with dispatchers.

The indirect benefits are equally important to Hoffman: "What it has done for us is given us more [sales] leads and made us able to understand the customers a little bit better because we've got more information." //

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